Most helpful critical review
Pound for pound it lost the match
on August 4, 2008
Irving, when Irving is good can write wonderful sentences. He can make us want more. But then, it goes on and on and you get the sick feeling that something is wrong. You can't put your finger on it exactly. The book isn't bad to speak of, quite good in the very first parts. Yet, there comes that nausea again as though the book is a flu. First the premise, then the analysis. Two couples decide to openly open their marriage. So there's switching. The story is told by one person and the omniscient narrator. Here come the problems. When the narrator tells the story and spends most of his time digging into the other male character, we begin to feel we've lost a sense of where this character stands. We don't feel, emphasis feel, what he should be or could be feeling in this loaded situation. Maybe Irving protects himself as writer from digging very deeply into this. His strength on the other hand is the attention to detail. He throws lots into the story, especially in back stories, and this is some of the most pleasurable reading. It's as though distance helps Irving to really see the scene. Over time, however, his strength becomes a weakness, the details don't move the story forward and the fact he's chosen perhaps controversial subject matter quickly becomes mundane. We shake our head and ask, just where is this tale taking us? Reviewers cannot get enough of comparing Irving to Dickens. This book is definitely not Dickensian in any respect. The story doesn't whip along, there is little if any tension, it continually flips back and forth in memory and current event. Even the writing style is not of Dickens. Where Dickens could tell is straight and fast, Irving continually overwrites. He beefs up every section to a muscular show but don't confuse this with amazing craft. He's solid but dull, in this book at least, and in others too, probably his main weakness. If you want to try it, go ahead. I don't find it is strongest work. The subject though, in the hands of a master like Bellow or Hemingway would just fly. If Irving's job was to make a story of wife swapping read like a stock ticker, he did his job. Don't expect more.